Is Your Child's Behavior Regressing? It’s Not What You Might Think
By Lois Mendelson, Director
These are difficult times for all of us, and Sam* is especially stressed. He is highly anxious, impulsive, and suffers from learning disabilities in addition to sensory and attentional problems. He is five years old, and his life isn’t fun anymore.
Prior to the pandemic and the upheaval that came with it, Sam was attending a good special needs program and doing well. After two years he was able to regulate his behaviors, attend to his lessons and was beginning to make friends. His behaviors at home had improved greatly as well. Meltdowns were no longer a problem and he was able to follow home routines and comply with home expectations. Then suddenly, Sam’s whole life changed. His school, friends and beloved teachers disappeared. His playdates stopped and he wasn’t allowed to go anywhere, not even to visit his adored grandparents. Now his parents are home all day, which could be really cool for Sam, but they are mostly working and don’t want to be disturbed. When they do spend time with him they seem grouchy and yell at him a lot. His two older brothers are also home all day. They can be fun, but sometimes they grab his stuff and scream at him. Sometimes he thinks that everyone is mad at him but he doesn’t know why. He doesn’t know what’s was going to happen. This is Sam’s take on his new life.
Sam’s mom, Jen, has her own perspective. Her life has also changed drastically. She now spends each morning on Zoom trying to get her work done. Her husband, David, is also working from home, and though he is actively engaged with the children, she has taken on the task of helping them with their home schooling, which is very demanding. To make matters worse, Sam refuses to do his Zoom lessons because he says they are too hard for him. She feels that if he doesn’t do the work he will fall irretrievably behind and his life will be ruined. So they engage in daily battles. All of Sam’s difficult behaviors have returned. He now has multiple meltdowns each day, over inconsequential things. When he isn’t having a meltdown he is whining. “Why is he regressing?” Jen asks herself. She is often annoyed and frustrated with him, but at the same time she is deeply anxious about his future. She worries that all of Sam’s hard-earned developmental gains will be eradicated, which propels her to put even more pressure on him. Since she no longer has child care or housekeeping help, she is truly overburdened. As if this weren’t enough, there are new financial stresses as well because her job, as well as David’s, have been reduced to part-time. No one is having much fun any more.
Does this sound familiar? This scenario is not uncommon during these troubled times. What can be done to help this family? When counseling Sam’s family and others like his, here’s what I suggest:
Regression is a form of communication: Sam’s “regressions” are normal, given the traumatic changes he is confronted with. Very young children often respond to loss and stress by having meltdowns, whining or becoming demanding and oppositional. They may develop sleep problems or regress in their toileting habits. They may become excessively clingy to their parents, fearful that if they lose sight of them they may lose them as they have lost so many other things. These behaviors are a form of communication, but a form of communication that is so easy to misread.
Visuals help children process information: I would suggest that they have a family meeting. Explain to Sam, in simple terms, why the appearance of the coronavirus has changed their lives for now. Of course they should be as reassuring as possible. It would be normal for Sam to feel terrified that someone in his family may get sick and even die and his parents should try to keep their own anxieties from projecting onto him. They should ask Sam to list all of his feelings about the new situation, and they should write them down, with drawings. Let him come up with his own ideas rather than give him thoughts he didn’t have. Some of his ideas may be surprising. They should also write down the things that Sam misses most as well as the things that he likes about staying at home. Visual documents are important because they help children process difficult information and develop insight.
Make connections for your kids (and for yourself!): Sam’s parents should help him make some important connections. They could say, for example, that when kids are mad about having to stay at home, when they miss things they love to do, and when they are worried that people they love may get sick, they sometimes start feeling really grouchy. Then it becomes harder for them to control themselves. Little things start to feel like big things, all day long. (Sam, as well as his parents, really need to internalize this!) They could ask Sam to remember what he does when he feels so grouchy and they should write this down, with pictures. Again, the visual summary helps Sam process what is happening at his own pace and helps him to become more self-aware.
Work together as a family to make progress: Sam’s parents can tell him that since they now understand what he’s going through, they can better help him to control himself. Most importantly, now they will not have to get so mad at his behaviors. (This piece of information will be greatly welcomed by Sam!)
Craft a story together: Write a story with Sam that begins, “once there was a boy named Sam who used to go to a school that he loved.” Sam can help construct the story. Start by stating the problem, then address Sam’s feelings about what’s going on. End the story on a hopeful note by pointing out that his family knows how to keep him safe and that they are always there for him and always ready to help him. This story should have simple drawings and should be read as often as needed. Chapters can be added as life unfolds. These discussions and stories help to clarify Sam’s feelings and also to validate them.
Create predictability with a daily schedule: Sam’s parents should explain that since school is no longer part of his schedule, they will make a new schedule so that he will know what to expect each day. The schedule will include ordinary things like breakfast, play time, lunch, going outside, etc. It should also include a special mommy or daddy and Sam time each day. Put in an art project, a favorite game or a cooking activity. Also throw in some surprises; you can write that tomorrow there will be a new toy, or a special dessert. Having a written schedule, and reading it to Sam each day, allows him to anticipate a day that is predictable and full of fun.
Set expectations for Sam’s behavior: Behavioral expectations should still be made clear and should be carried through. Sam should not be allowed to just go wild. Once some of the above suggestions are implemented, however, it will be easier for Sam to control his moods and behaviors.
Cut your children and yourselves some slack: Sam’s parents can relax about pushing academic learning if it’s difficult for him. It just adds to the stress. He will catch up (remember, all kids are in the same boat!). It’s okay to give him more down time, even if it includes extra screen time. Right now it’s crucial to reduce stress and increase feelings of comfort and safety.
While life is now stressful, unpredictable and fraught with unprecedented risks, there are things you can do to encourage healthy development in your children. A shift in your framework of thinking will help your children flourish even in these difficult times. How you communicate and implement these new parenting priorities will make all the difference. The good news is that you can use these ideas with children of various ages (with special needs or without), as long as you are flexible with the level of language that you use. If some of the concepts I have explored make sense to you, try them out and make them your own. Embellish them or alter them to meet the needs of your family and to fit your personal style. Give your children some slack, (all of your children, not just those with special needs) and most importantly, give yourself some slack. Of course you will sometimes get frustrated and overreact, and that’s okay. Find ways to take care of yourself and refuel yourself. Try to reduce your own level of stress, particularly your anxieties about how your children will fare. If you can find ways to approach your children with equanimity and pleasure in spite of everything—even if you manage this only some of the time—you will be giving them a great gift.
Right now your children are feeling the loss of so many things in their lives. If they experience you as stressed, irritable, frustrated, and demanding much of the time, they may feel that they have lost you as well. What is important now is to help your children feel validated, to reduce unnecessary demands, to allow for extra down time, and to try to ensure that for some parts of each day, you are truly engaged with them and enjoying them. In spite of all the challenges you are now facing, if you are able to create a home environment that feels safe, loving, fun and predictable, your children will certainly flourish.
Dr. Lois Mendelson is the director of The Springboard School (formerly The Therapeutic Nursery of the JCC on the Palisades) a nationally recognized program for bright preschool children with a variety of developmental challenges, including communication and learning disorders, ADHD, emotional and behavior problems, and high functioning autism. She has been a part of the program since its inception in 1978 and has been the director for the past twenty years. Lois can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 917-692-8298. She welcomes questions from families whose children could benefit from her decades of expertise.
*The names in this article have been changed.